Me & Ms. T. by Laura Ruby
I was the weird kid in the back of classroom. You know the one. The absent-minded, goggle-eyed kid that can’t ever seem to focus, the one that daydreams through the entire lessons, stares into the middle distance with a glazed, dumb look on her face. (Not that you’d ever put it that way, unlike my second-grade teacher, who wrote in the comments section of my report card, “Laura is doing better this marking period, but she still stares out the window and appears stupid.”)
Like most weird kids, I wasn’t acting this way on purpose, I didn’t mean to exasperate my teachers. But exasperate them, I did. My second grade teacher certainly, my third and fourth grade teachers for sure. Most of all, I exasperated my fifth grade teacher, Ms. T.
Ms. T. was tall, imposing woman with a deep, gravelly voice and handwriting so beautiful that everything she wrote on the board looked like the calligraphy on a wedding invitation. A dynamic and creative teacher, she picked awesome books for our reading groups, played rousing math games, and had us write, direct, film and act in our own full-length TV show (including designing and producing a board game for the commercials). She was demanding but patient, firm but gentle, and she seemed to love us all.
I drove her bananas.
I loved books but stealth-read them when I was supposed to be doing something else—science or social studies or spelling. Math was so confusing for me that I often spent my time doodling cats instead of multiplying fractions (I flip numbers some people flip letters, a fact I didn’t figure out until college). I daydreamed constantly, the real world drifting out of focus almost as soon as Ms. T. starting talking, my head filled with the stories I read and the stories I told myself.
If I had been born twenty years later, I might have been diagnosed with ADHD or an anxiety disorder or both, I might have had an IEP. But this was the late 70s, a time when exasperated teachers and their weird students were mostly left to figure things out on their own.
Ms. T couldn’t understand why I couldn’t read the books I was supposed to read when I was supposed to read them. She couldn’t understand how I could be such a great reader and so very lousy in math. She couldn’t understand why I had the handwriting of a junior serial killer. She couldn’t understand why I couldn’t pay attention. She couldn’t understand.
At the first sign of my eyes glazing over, Ms. T. would bark my name so loud that the whole class jumped. She demoted me to a lower reading group until my math grades improved. I spent many hours imprisoned at her desk, trying to round out my awkward chicken scratches into something remotely legible (it didn’t work).
She was frustrated, I was sad. She thought I was willfully disobedient, I thought she was mean.
And then, a few of months into the school year, she had a new assignment for us. Each of us would draw a picture. She would put the pictures up on the wall. We would pick another student’s picture and write a story about it. I snapped to attention; I liked this game. When it was time to choose a picture to write about, I selected a drawing of a mermaid. I wrote a story about this mermaid from the point-of-view of the man who meets and falls in love with her, then loses her to the sea forever.
When Ms. T read it, she looked at me as if I’d suddenly grown a tail myself. And then she smiled. For the first time, she saw me.
From then on, she stopped barking my name and instead slipped me books from her personal library. I read one of my favorites, a ghost story called JANE-EMILY by Patricia Clapp, so many times the pages got soft as cotton. Oh, I still had to work at math and she still asked me to pay attention to science and social studies and spelling, but she understood I wasn’t doing this on purpose, she understood there was something going on in my head when I drifted away. And because she saw me, I saw her, a woman doing the best job she could.
I’ve had to manage my own weirdness, my own distractibility my whole life (and let me tell you, Twitter hasn’t helped). But this distractibility and the reputation for weirdness are the very attributes I gave to my main character Finn in my new YA novel BONE GAP. I also gave him what I didn’t always have, that is, people who see beyond the “weirdness,” people that see him for who he really is. It is a novel about love, certainly—between a girl and a boy, between a woman and a man, between two brothers—but it’s also about perception, and how easy it is to mistake the evidence of our own senses for the whole truth of another person.
I think Ms. T. would have approved.
Laura Ruby writes fiction for adults, teens and children. Titles include the Edgar-nominated children’s mystery LILY’S GHOSTS (now updated for 2011), the ALA Quick Pick for teens GOOD GIRLS (2006), and a collection of interconnected short stories about blended families for adults, I’M NOT JULIA ROBERTS (2007). She is also the author of the YA novel BONE GAP (2015) and the middle-grade trilogy YORK. She is on the faculty of Hamline University’s Masters in Writing for Children Program. She makes her home in the Chicago area. You can find her online at www.lauraruby.com and on Twitter as @thatlauraruby.